Once upon a time in the mid-1970s, toward the end of the Watergate fiasco, comedian Rich Little did an impression of President Richard Nixon. In it he said, “Richard Nixon is the kind of man who, if you were drowning 20 feet off shore, would throw you eleven feet of rope and say, ‘Let me make myself perfectly clear: I went more than half way.'”
That really caught my attention on the one and only time I saw it. It has stuck with me to this day, and it seems that I see more and more of it every day. The clearest examples seem to come in politics and advertising. What is most intriguing about this kind of “truth” is that it is, technically, true. Eleven is certainly more than half of 20. But to one who is drowning nine feet away from the end of the rope, it is a profoundly hollow truth.
What I have finally decided is that the lie is not in what is said, or even what is left out. The lie is implicit in the assumption that this truth is the most important and relevant truth about the situation. In Little’s example, the implicit assumption is that the helpfulness of the rope is directly proportionate to the length of the rope. This is, in fact, utterly irrelevant to the situation. Either you give the drowning person a means of survival or you don’t. Proportion has nothing whatsoever to do with it.
Yet on the surface, such statements seem to make sense. And you certainly can’t call a person a liar for saying so. And that is how such lies are used: to give the appearance of telling the truth, and to do so in such a way that you can’t be accused of lying. All you have to do is measure the length of the rope, and the truth of the assertion can be easily verified.
You see this in personal relationships of all kinds. For example, a father who says, “I have always made a good living for my family,” may be telling the truth. But what if he beats his wife, or constantly criticizes and belittles his children? Is the size of his paycheck more important, more relevant?
Similarly, what about a woman who truthfully says, “I have always been faithful to my husband,” but spends her days at the local pub squandering the mortgage payment on video poker and Keno? Is she really telling the most important truth?
One of the most insidious examples I learned from Eric Berne’s wonderful book, “The Games People Play.” In it he describes a game he calls “Now I’ve got you, you SOB,” or just NIGYSOB for short. In this little drama, a wife cuts her husband off from all affection, physical and otherwise, and when the husband, in desperation has an affair and gets caught, they have a rousing game of NIGYSOB. Now, she can honestly say that she was never unfaithful to him, but he cheated on her in a most egregious way. Yet when you look at the larger picture, she played a major role in the circumstances leading up to his “indiscretion.”
You can almost always tell when someone, even yourself, is telling an eleven-foot truth: it feels icky. If you are the teller, you know at some level that you’re lying, even if you don’t let your conscious mind in on the hoax. If you are hearing such an assertion, you feel funny because you are being asked, by implication, to accept and agree with a covert lie. The key to defeating such things is to have the presence of mind to notice these feelings, the insight to see through them to the larger truth that is hidden in plain sight, and the integrity to say the emperor has no clothes.
An excellent place to get a superb education in this tactic, though not its cure, is listening to politicians and watching TV ads. They are almost always composed of little else. When stripped down to the naked elements, they say very little of substance, and even less meaningful truth. When we accept these kinds of lies-that-aren’t-lies, we get exactly what they offer: nine feet less rope than we need.
There is another facet of truthfulness that is equally challenging to get a firm grasp on. I refer now to something I learned from a joke that takes the form of a riddle.
Q. What is the difference between a computer salesman and a used car salesman? A. The used car salesman knows when he's lying to you.
I found this humorous little tidbit very funny when first I heard it. But it kept gnawing at me. I had a strong feeling that there was something hidden within it that was far more important than salesmanship. It didn’t take long to discover what it was: if you don’t know you’re lying, are you still a liar?
If you answer ‘yes’ to this question, then we are all liars, because we all say things that we may think are true, but aren’t. If you answer ‘no,’ then you are giving every conspiracy theorist and feebleminded moron a license to spread all manner of lies without blame. Is there no alternative? Of course there is.
What is needed is a clarification of what is and is not lying. First of all, there are two dictionary definitions of lying that apply; one that says that you must know what you’re saying isn’t true, and another that says it doesn’t matter whether you know it’s untrue. So it all comes down to a matter of intent.
Here is an approach that may be helpful in resolving this issue. How about if we assume that if you say anything, you are purporting its truthfulness. If you don’t know whether it’s true, you shouldn’t say it, or at least you must admit that you aren’t sure. To do otherwise may not strictly qualify as intent to lie, but it certainly demonstrates a willingness to do so and a flagrant disregard of truthfulness. So both our rope thrower and computer salesman are guilty of lying by this interpretation, and I believe rightfully so.
What this all comes down to is one’s respect for and devotion to truthfulness, and this in turn is a function of one’s intellectual integrity, which is the passionate desire to know the truth of things, even if that truth isn’t what you’d hoped and expected it to be. If you hold that yardstick up against the ongoing political dialog in our country, or our world for that matter, virtually everyone is found to be woefully lacking (which is about as kindly as I can put it). Simply put: If you are not willing and able to stand behind it, don’t say it.
So let us all aspire to a higher level of intellectual integrity. It may not be a perfect cure for what ails us, but it is a giant step in the right direction. And under no circumstance perpetrate the hoaxes popularized by rope throwers and computer salesmen everywhere (my apologies to salesmen and saleswomen who never do this, and to the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy as well.)